Column: Where ‘haywire’ comes from
The word “haywire” has of course come to represent a machine or situation that has ignored all of the three laws of conservation of energy and proceeded into chaos.
As laws go, there should be another one, which would state: “Any situation with more than one moving part has a tendency to go haywire.”
And it will indeed do so, likely as soon as someone pats themselves on the back and says something stupid, like, “There. Everything’s running smoothly.”
Never say things are running smoothly. Stupid.
There you have it, the fourth law.
I have more than a passing acquaintance with “haywire,” because back in the early 1950s, Dad and his neighbor farmer/friend Gene ran afoul of the more-than-one-moving-part law and the first law of sanity, and in a momentary loss of both, purchased a used Case wire-tie hay baler.
It had several of the latest modern features. In an era where loose hay had been put into the barn, with its huge volume, now one compact bale of hay could contain huge mounds and mounds of hay, all squeezed into a bale that in this Case turned out to weigh well over 50 pounds.
Dad and Gene were looking forward to this modernization of their hay making. The lucky guy who’d sold this contraption to them was gleefully looking forward to lowering his overall quota of moving parts. This thing had moving parts to spare. In addition, all the laws were looking to break out simultaneously.
This baler had its own four-cylinder Wisconsin engine, which started quite dependably anytime the temperature was below 60 degrees. Otherwise? Nope.
It’s always over 60 degrees when you bale. So that was a slight problem. The engine was hand cranked. And cranked. And cranked some more. The warmer the weather, the more cranking and cursing was required.
Someone had to drive the tractor to pull this baler, which had a hayrack pulled behind it. Someone had to ride the rack to stack the bales, someone who could handle heavy bales, so at least two of us kids were on the rack at a time. There was a lot of starting and stopping to come back and straighten out our stacking, since even two of us could barely stack two bales high. These bales weighed almost as much as we did.
Gene’s oldest son could, but the dirtiest job on that baler, which required one person to stick two wires through, was a job for the other person on the side opposite, who had to tie those wires. He did so in a constant storm of dust and heat from the baler plunger, which puff-puff-puffed a small tornado of leaves, dirt, pollen and the occasional dead garter snake into the tie-ers face. The oldest son got that job.
They tried us smaller boys at sticking and tying, but we’d take it only so long before “accidentally” messing something up. We might have been small, but we were of above average intelligence.
Without a doubt, my favorite part of baling was lying beneath the hayrack in the shade after lunch, hoping that Dad and Gene wouldn’t be able to start the Wisconsin engine. We had it made there. Neither my brother nor Gene’s youngest son nor I were big enough to crank that monster. Instead, we layed there under the hayrack, cool in the shade, chewing a stem of Foxtail grass, smelling clover and alfalfa smells, and anticipating new profanity that we could try out.
“Haywire.” The term comes from earlier wire-tie balers that unrolled wire from big spools carried right on the baler, which, the very first time you didn’t pay strict attention to it, followed the fourth law, and unwound themselves explosively into a huge backlash bloom of wire so snarled up that it could take hours to get it back under control.
Electrical linemen have a term for what huge rolls of wire taller than a man do when the loose end bursts loose.
“Birdcage,” they say.
Bad news. One word. Birdcage. I can see it. The fourth law. It’s applicable everywhere.